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February 9, 2014

Books written for those in the first half of life are frequently framed in the imperative. Do this to find love of your life! Try these ten ways to divorce-proof your marriage! Here’s what you must do to be a successful parent! Do these six things to get the job of your dreams!

Those imperatives feed our first-half dreams for our lives. They nourish our ambitions. They are tools in a builder’s hands – and while we’re building our lives, we often accumulate fix it hardware as though we’re stocking a Home Depot. While imperative-driven technique may be a helpful tool in a builder’s hands, these same tools tend to be the exact baggage we jettison as we enter the second half of our lives. The second half is a climb upwards. Those builder’s tools no longer serve any purpose in our lives. 

What struck me about Luci Shaw’s Adventure of Ascent: Field Notes From A Lifelong Journey (IVP Crescendo 2014)* is how blissfully free of imperative language it is. Poet Luci Shaw, 86, discarded the tools of ambition decades ago. She is focused entirely on the work of making the final stretch of her journey on earth. Her book is a series of vignettes and reflections that give those of us at a lower elevation a look at the internal narrative that describes this ascent.

“The problem is none of us know how long we have left. Or what physical problems will afflict us. Will our money last? That’s one question, but not the most important. There is so much I have to do, to learn, to experience (though once again, why is that important to anyone but me?) Can I trust that God will allow me enough energy and length of days to realize and carry out my calling and complete the climb?”

While most of us imagine this final stage of life is mostly quiet reflection about all that’s come before as a way to make our peace and take our leave, Shaw’s book reminds us that there is far more to this stage of life than steeping in memories. Climbing, by definition, has much to do with awareness of where you are and where you’re heading. It’s hard to climb looking back 100% of the time.

Shaw reflects on the past, but is very much a woman of the present. She writes of the waning energy she has for travel, of failing health, of loss. She also tells stories of choir, of visits with her spiritual director, of designing a new (final) home. She is writing as she contemplates her own death, and she is writing to make sense of what it means to truly, fully live as an octogenarian.

“I sometimes visualize the truths still hidden from me, what in the New Testament are designated ‘mysteries’, as gathered like translucent beams of light high above me, in the groins and arches of this cathedral we call the Christian faith. In one sense I myself am in that ‘cloud of unknowing’. And in that knowledge gap I’m wondering if all the fervent prayers on my behalf have already been answered…”

This book may not make much sense to you if you are looking for a hammer or a jigsaw. But it will be a welcome companion if you find yourself looking upward at a path shrouded in fog, knowing that your destination is waiting just ahead.

* * * * * * *

If you are a pastor, church staffer or congregational leader, please take a few moments to offer your thoughts on how your congregation relates to members in the second half of life at my short survey: https://www.surveymonkey.com/s/YNJ7P62 

* I received a review copy of this book from the publisher. Its unexpected arrival in my mailbox did not affect the way in which I read or reviewed it.

April 27, 2013

We live as exiles. We’re called to be pilgrims.

I am journeying through Scripture chronologically, stopping at a few oases along the way, in order to contemplate our exile experience. I’ll also offer some helpful thoughts about how Christ can reshape that identity and reorient our journey so we live as pilgrims. To read earlier posts in the series, click here.

* * * * * * *

Tom Petty’s anthem addressing a lover who clutched her past baggage like a security blanket and lived as though she was in the starting blocks, ready to run, is on my iPod roadtrip playlist:

Somewhere, somehow somebody
Must have kicked you around some
Tell me why you wanna lay there
And revel in your abandon
Listen it don’t make no difference to me baby
Everybody’s had to fight to be free
You see you don’t have to live like a refugee
Now baby you don’t have to live like a refugee

Why would a free person live like a refugee?

The children of Israel might have been able to proffer answer or three. Exodus 15 details the rise and crash of a people who’d been (justifiably) complaining about their slave status for generations, received deliverance from God in a way that would leave no question he was the one who’d freed them, celebrated by launching praise fireworks in the Sinai, and within hours, reverted to their old familiar mother tongue. They complained.

Then Moses led Israel from the Red Sea and they went into the Desert of Shur. For three days they traveled in the desert without finding water. When they came to Marah, they could not drink its water because it was bitter. (That is why the place is called Marah.) So the people grumbled against Moses, saying, “What are we to drink?” – Exodus 15:22-24

Of course they were thirsty. Three days is about as long as a body can go without H2O. And in that blazing white hot desert, the relief of release evaporated quickly. They didn’t yet know how to ask their Deliverer for water, or trust that he would provide it for them. Moses interceded for them, and the Lord gave Moses another miracle to pass on to the people. A piece of wood (wood in the treeless desert?) tossed into the water in response to God transformed it from bitter to potable.

The people failed the first pop quiz of their new lives. It was, as we say, a teachable moment. God asked the children of Israel to stop thinking like slaves: “If you listen carefully to the Lord your God and do what is right in his eyes, if you pay attention to his commands and keep all his decrees, I will not bring on you any of the diseases I brought on the Egyptians, for I am the Lord, who heals you.” (Ex. 15:20) Their obedience would allow them to flourish heart, soul, mind and strength. After more than four centuries parked in Egypt as third-class non-citizens, they entered the Sinai as though they were refugees. By definition, refugees are people who’ve been forced to leave their homeland.

The children of Israel weren’t being pushed out of Egypt; in fact, about 17 seconds after they were granted the freedom to go to the desert to worship God, Pharaoh sent his army after them in order to round `em up and bring `em back. But they didn’t understand what it meant to be pilgrims headed home. It would take the God’s schoolroom – the desert – to teach them how to stop thinking and acting as refugees.

Have you ever been given freedom and realized you had no idea what to do with it? If this has been your experience in some area of your life, did you find yourself tempted to revert to old ways of thinking and acting? 

March 12, 2013

Please check it out: http://www.patheos.com/blogs/pilgrimsroadtrip/2013/02/doesthatbaggage/

I’ll be posting there, and adding links to those posts here. A new adventure begins!

 

November 3, 2012

“I want to leave my church, but I feel as though I’ve committed to them for life,” my friend K. said to me recently.

She went on to explain that her congregational leaders taught that membership was a covenant between the member and the church. There was no exit clause unless a person moved out of the area. “That isn’t to say that people don’t leave the church anyway. But when they do, everyone acts as though there’s been a bad divorce in the family.”

When a church invokes words like covenant in order to define the relationship of members to itself, leavers find themselves schlepping some brand-new baggage with them to their next destination. Before you whip out a harmonica and start singing The Church Shoppers Blues about the lack of commitment of these leavers, I point to a survey describing the career trajectory of pastors. Admittedly, its a few years old now, but the numbers in the survey should give you a sense that pastors don’t always stay in one place until death do them part. Leaders leave their churches, sometimes in response to God’s calling, health or family issues – and sometimes, fleeing for their lives from a runaway case of ugly church politics.

But no matter how many leaders become leavers, there are always many more of us congregants on the move. I recognize that a formal process by which believers have been brought into the family of the church has existed from nearly the very beginning. Since the movement of leavers also known as The Reformation caught on five hundred or so years ago, exiting one’s mother church is usually never pretty. For the sake of the entire body of Christ, I believe this needs to change.

My husband and I have been official members of two different congregations. The first used covenant-type language for membership language. In exchange for our affirmation of the church’s doctrinal positions, our agreement to tithe, our commitment to participate fully in the life of the church (be a regular attender of a small group, pray for – and in fine print, “Don’t question” – the leadership team, serve), we were considered members. I am not sure if I have a block, but I honestly can’t remember what the leaders promised to do for us, if anything. But we loved the church, so we signed, so to speak, on their dotted line. Seven years later, we left the church after being on the blunt end of a regular pattern of spiritual abuse. Though we later learned the leadership’s pattern of abuse served as a very distracting smokescreen camouflaging the pastor’s adultery and porn addiction, all I knew at the time we departed was that we’d just been through a bad, sad breakup. It took a very long time to work through the loss. I believe that the added layer of the vow we’d broken in order to leave the church added another facet of failure to the whole mess, a failure that lingered spiritually in our lives like a swarm of flies around a trash can in the mid-August. Then there was the cursing of us done by the leaders, in the form of gossip. Though the gossip was a mark of their dysfunction, it smeared our bad baggage with excrement, thus attracting more flies.

Nearly a decade later, we took the plunge into membership again. We did so after our earlier experience only because membership was a one-year commitment, renewable annually**, and Bill and I were moving into leadership roles. There was a little more grace in this arrangement, as well as an opportunity to reevaluate our level of involvement. There were some congregants attending this church who, for various reasons, had once been members and had chosen to downshift to non-member status. Non-members couldn’t vote, and they were prohibited from serving in a leadership role, but otherwise, non-members could freely participate in the life of the church. Our relationship with this congregation ended when we relocated.

In my conversation with K., it occurred to me that most churches don’t know what to do with leavers. I’m not talking about the leavers who nail a list of grievances to the front door or the ones who fade away. I’m talking about the ones who may have a sense of calling to a new congregation, or disagree with the teaching or direction of the church and believe it would be best to move on rather than stay and be labeled a Problem.

What would it look like for church leaders to offer prayer or even (*gasp*) a blessing for those who let their church leadership know they’re leaving? I understand these situations can be awkward and weighted with the sense of failure or rejection, perhaps on the part of both parties, but I believe that this act of submission to the Head may be a life-giving act that brings health and healing to a local church as well as the entire body of Christ.

What has your experience been when you’ve left a church after being a member? Have you been cursed or blessed? Church leaders, I know a few of you read this blog – how do you handle leavers?   

 

**My husband and I are not members of the church we’ve attended for nearly 3 years, and have no plans to change that status. 

August 30, 2011

The subtitle this 181-page spiritual memoir is “A Moody, Somewhat Self-Indulgent Introvert’s Search for Spiritual Community”, which perhaps may feel as though the book’s cover information gives away the proverbial ranch. But Reluctant Pilgrim (Fresh Air Books, 2010) is far more than the story of a solitude-craving woman’s church search.

Author Emuna Okoro tells it like it is – whether the “it” is a confessed fondness for designer purses or the confusing cacophony of emotions that spilled out of her in the wake of her father’s death. Okoro’s Nigerian childhood was shaped by her family’s Catholic faith as much as it was by her parents’ divorce. Okoro’s teen years were spent primarily in the United States, where the contours of her childhood faith were stretched to the breaking point by Protestantism, popular culture and low-grade existential pain:

All this sort of came to a head seven years ago, once I walked out of the doors of a renowned theological institution with a degree in my hands. I didn’t immediately feel more equipped to engage the world with my trained understanding of how the perichoretic dance of the Trinity is more metaphysical than a tangible reality. What does that even mean, people? Nor was I any more in love with the church or anymore convinced that I needed a regular and consistent faith community to help me be more faithful to Jesus. The sad bottom line was that after seminary I realized I still didn’t get the half of it. I hadn’t found a home church in several years. My most fervent prayer was still about finding a hot godly man with really thick hair.

I worked at a seminary over a span of five years, and for every faith-filled, gung-ho student present on the campus, there was another who grew more and more weighed down with unanswered questions and the baggage of too much unusuable information crammed into every conceivable mental file cabinet. On the far side of all that education, life is waiting to grind some of that education into wisdom and force the baggage-carrier to put the rest into long-term cold storage.

Okoro had a love-hate relationship with the disconnect she was living with the big “C” Church, and it is here that her lyrical, blunt writing shines brightest. There are a lot of people out there living this same love-hate relationship these days, and Okoro’s experience will both resonate and challenge those people not to simply shrug off the search for a congregation. She doesn’t offer readers tidy solutions about how to resolve that tension in their own lives, but instead, allows the raw details of her journey into community – as well as how that community carried her through two significant losses – to salt the oats for  readers. Recommended.

*I received a review copy of this book from the publisher.

 

January 6, 2011

Three days ago, Ted Williams was a homeless guy panhandling along a freeway. Now he’s the latest media sensation in a you tube genre first clicked into life by viral viewings of the never-been-kissed middle-aged Susan Boyle. When Ted opened his mouth and a velvety FM baritone came out, the world stopped for a moment to listen – and then forwarded Ted’s feel-good story on to their friends.

Everyone loves a happy ending, and as the offers and media appearances are now piling on for Ted as they did for Susan, I pray he gets his. The demands of life in the spotlight can shatter an emotionally-fragile person. Boyle has had mental health issues in the wake of her meteoric rise to fame. Ted is now in the spotlight on the back end of years of addiction and a decade of homelessness. Happy endings at mid-life don’t come without reckoning with the large assortment of second-hand Samsonite baggage these folks (and most of the rest of us) carry.

I am grateful that occasionally our gaze turns from the manufactured beauty of most celebrities to embrace talent in battered packaging. Ted and Susan serve as pieced-together icons of hope for the rest of us – all of the un-pretty, battle-scarred rest of us. Buried just beneath Ted or Susan’s mangy, pre-celebrity exteriors was the shock and awe of their stunning, incongruous talent.

But maybe the best use of the little jolt of hope we get from these Star Is Born you tube stories is to remind us tune our ears to those around us for a moment so we can hear the beautiful music coming from a neglected, broken, un-pretty neighbor, coworker or friend.

August 23, 2009

Recently, I’ve had an opportunity to read a handful of interesting non-fiction books. The first, Keri Wyatt Kent’s Listen: Finding God in the Story of Your Life, was a wonderful treat to myself. The next three were review copies offered to bloggers by publishers. The books have taken me from contemplative life to life between the sheets, from a theological throwdown to a challenge to rise above the rabble of pop culture.

Read on to find out which one of these books I didn’t like one bit.


Listen: Finding God in the Story of Your Life (Jossey-Bass) is an accessible, thoughtful invitation to a deeper life with God. The divisions of the 193-page hardcover offers a great overview of the way author Keri Wyatt Kent has tackled the subject of intentional listening: Section 1, Listening To Your Life, explores our passions, struggles and longings. The next section discusses Listening to Others in community and through a committment to compassion. The final section of this book, Listening Practices, is an introductory journey through the spiritual disciplines of silence, lectio divina and prayer.

Wyatt Kent’s writing voice is luminous and wonderfully honest. She puts her life and struggles onto the pages as appropriate, encouraging illustrations meant to urge us along. She’s a smart, funny suburban mom, kneading her passion for God into the dough of everyday life – and letting the rest of us know that a deeper, wiser, more intentional life is possible. Highly recommended.


Even though the picture above looks like a floating fig leaf, it is actually the cover of Pastor Andrew Farley’s recent release The Naked Gospel (Zondervan). The subtitle of this book is “The truth you may never hear in church”. I’ve actually heard his version of “grace versus law” over the years in some of the dispensationalist churches we’ve attended.

Farley is understandably angry about his own past addiction to religious performance (“My intensity hit its pinnacle when I could no longer sleep at night unless I had shared Christ with someone that day”). His Martin-Luther-like “Saved by grace through faith, and not works” breakthrough in intellectual understanding about the nature of grace helped move him off the performance treadmill and onto the horse he’s riding in this volume.

I disagreed with his view of the place of the Old Testament and the need for confession, just for starters. But his smug, graceless delivery that left me feeling like I’d been slimed by the time I’d finished the book. Farley had some clever illustrations to support his points, though it was a bit distracting to have him insist on presenting them as fact (“In 1998, my father was killed in a car accident…”) instead of the illustrations they are (his dad wasn’t killed in a car accident – gotcha!). The book’s tone is unnecessarily defensive and combative, and by the time I finished its 231 pages, I all I wanted was a piece of good news. This attempt to strip away religion from the gospel wasn’t it.

No More Headaches: Enjoying Sex & Intimacy in Marriage (Tyndale/Focus On The Family) would make a helpful read for a monogamous wife and mother of a couple of young kids who has been married for about 10 years. Dr. Juli Slattery tackles differences between men and women in this overview of married sexuality, coaching her readers toward a greater commitment to their mates, themselves and God.

She’s frank without being salacious, and discusses desire, physiology, our past baggage, life in our hyper-sexualized society, and the effects of parenthood on intimacy in far more detail than you’d hear at church, but less detail (thank you) than you’d hear on Oprah. Slattery would affirm my own (thank you) response – she observes that younger and older women tend to have different comfort levels with discussions about sex. Younger women who have been brought up in our sex-saturated culture keep far more on the table when discussing their sex lives with their friends than we boomer women do. My own experience working with college women has confirmed this.

She does a good job connecting the physical to the emotional and spiritual, while avoiding specific prescriptions (how adventurous should a couple get?) in favor of general principles. Slattery’s friendly writer’s voice and lots of anecdotes from her own counseling practice make the book like a heart-to-heart conversation with a smart, wise Christian girlfriend – and a useful overview/gentle course correction for some church-going women.

For a heart-to-heart of a different kind, Jordan Christy’s How to Be a Hepburn in a Hilton World: The Art of Living with Style, Class and Grace (Hachette) is the kind of advice book most every generation needs. Unfortunately, the people who most need Jordan Christy’s advice – the skanky girls who use Paris/Britney/Kardashians as role models – would probably never pick up this breezy book. But for young women trying to figure out how to navigate a world where immodesty and agressive sexual behavior rules, Christy’s smart, sweet book of advice is like pep talk from someone who is channeling a combo of Miss Manners, your wise grandmother, and yes, Audrey Hepburn.

With chapters discussing topics like language, friendships, clothing and dating, you’d think this book might read like a giant, pruny scold from an never-married aunt born during Queen Victoria’s reign. But Christy writes with the bubbly confidence of someone who is navigating these waters NOW while making intentional choices that allow her to rise above vapid shallowness. She tosses store names (Anthropologie and Urban Outfitters) and sprinkles pop culture references (Ashton Kutcher) into timeless advice like “don’t call him – wait for him to call you”.

In fact, those date-stamped “right now” references may give this book a relatively short shelf life. But for young (20-35) women trying to figure out who they’re going to be, Christy’s cheerful wisdom may be just what they need right now to march into their tomorrows with class and a cute pair of shoes.




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